Fareed Zakaria ( “Is America in Decline? Why the United States will survive the Rise of the Rest“, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2008 ) spends quite a few pages discussing the relevance of comparisons between the decline of the British Empire and the current situation of the US. Despite the facile similarities–being the premier economy with a global reach–what were Britain’s weaknesses are America’s strengths. The reach of British political power far outdistanced the capacity of its economy by the turn of the century. For the most part, the American economy is not burdened by the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, representing but a small part of GDP. Moreover, American institutions (most notably education) will help the economy maintain its global position. The challenge for the US is not to see the ‘Rise of the Rest’ as a depletion of US power, but to adjust to the reality of a multipolar world in which the US is still dominant.

It’s a hopeful story, and probably Zakaria’s prescription for Americans to learn from the emerging capitalisms is good advice. It’s curious though that Britain would continue to serve as a a valuable example after Zakaria dispensed with its contemporary relevance. If the US can’t fail like Britain, what can we learn from it? Zakaria, of course, did not dictate the terms of the discourse. There’s a tradition of depicting the US as the inheritor of British power and progress, something the Ferguson’s of the world are willing to perpetuate. But even as he undermines the relevance of the British example, he continues to draw inspiration therefrom. Though we might not fail like Britain doesn’t mean we better understand how to avoid failing.

The uniqueness of Britain’s global dominance is largely overstated. Between the Treaty of Paris and the Invasion of Algiers, a seventy-three year period during which chief rival France’s imperial ambitions were continental rather than global, Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain maintained extensive global empires (often at tremendous cost). After the Conference of Berlin, other European states were able to assert themselves on the global stage with relative ease. At least in the German case, it was largely to claim the right to be called ein Weltmacht (a global power). in fact, Germany’s territorial empire was incongruent with its commercial ventures, the former burdening the latter, and may be more relevant to comparison. The real question, however, is not whether one country or another is a better comparison for American imperialism. It’s a matter of seeing the entirety of European imperialism since the Early Modern Era–the domination of a collection of European powers over the globe–and where America fits therein. Zakaria may think that reform is all that is needed to maintain global leadership, but it is possible that imperial commitments will inhibit reforms (France, Germany), or that the depletion of manufacturing base will force political power to become dependent on commercial ventures (Netherlands).